Augmented reality (AR) still plays a relatively small role in the travel industry, especially when compared with its cousin, virtual reality (VR). But because it represents a lower barrier to entry on the consumer end, it's a technology that experts expect will grow in both capability and adoption.
While VR tends to immerse a user in content with the assistance of a headset -- either a lower-end version like Google Cardboard or a high-end set like Facebook's Oculus Rift -- AR combines reality with digital content, oftentimes employing a device like a smartphone. It can also appear on wearable devices, like glasses (Google Glass was an early example of overlaying technology on real surroundings).
In a report titled "Tech's Fourth Wave Meets Travel: What's Next for Virtual, Augmented and Mixed Reality?" Phocuswright senior research analyst Cathy Walsh wrote, "Augmented reality superimposes digital content onto the user's view of the real world. In a basic version of AR, users may see objects or information floating in front of their environment, while more sophisticated AR will integrate objects into real-world surroundings."
AR arguably first hit the mainstream in force last summer when Niantic released its popular mobile game, Pokemon Go, which enables users to catch digital monsters superimposed over an actual camera view on a smartphone.
But the technology's adoption within the travel industry has been slow.
"AR really almost doesn't exist within the travel industry right now, at least in any kind of application that a consumer or a travel agent would see," said industry analyst Henry Harteveldt, founder of Atmosphere Research Group.
Harteveldt estimated it that it would take two to three years for adoption of AR to hit critical mass for travel purposes.
"Part of the challenge is the cost of development, and part of the challenge is figuring out, OK, what is interesting and what is noteworthy that I can use for whatever commercial purposes?" he said.
One speed bump is that wearable devices with AR functionality have yet to come to market.
However, as Walsh's report points out, "There are signs that point to rapid development in the coming years." In particular, she wrote, Pokemon Go's success suggests that "the right product can fuel rapid adoption of augmented reality."
All of mTrip Mobile Solutions’ apps include augmented reality functionality, overlaying points of interest like restaurants and attractions using a smartphone’s camera view.
At the moment, several companies within the travel industry are offering apps that feature AR functionality, such as mTrip Mobile Solutions and CN2.
MTrip's first offerings were destination-specific guide apps. Today, the company has expanded and develops apps for the likes of destination marketing organizations and tour operators. Carole Moreira, head of business development, said all the company's apps include AR functions.
Using a smartphone's camera view, mTrip's apps overlay points of interest and attractions on top of a real-world view.
Moreira admitted AR is often a complicated concept for travel companies to understand.
"It remains, for many decision-makers, an extra, the cherry on top of the cake," she said. "It's not the cake."
At Collette, one of mTrip's clients, Tom Gavriluk, director of digital marketing, said the app's AR functionality was not what initially attracted the tour operator to mTrip. Instead, it was its overall functionality. The Collette Compass app developed by mTrip includes things like itineraries, offline destination information content and a trip journal. However, Collette's clients have enjoyed the app's AR functionality, he said, using it during free time to explore and experience local cultures.
"The travel industry has only scratched the surface in its use of mobile technology enhancing the guests' tour experience before, during and after," Gavriluk said. "A big part of the push to get this completed was Collette's desire to be early to market and provide our guests with something the competition could not."
CN2 developed Visit Orlando's app, which launched last summer. In addition to other functionality, it includes an AR component with map overlays pointing out things like nearby attractions and dining.
It also includes artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities; combined with AR, it puts Visit Orlando's app in a "unique space," said Elaine Blazys, the destination marketing organization's associate vice president of travel industry sales. App users are engaging with both features, she said, which "add an unexpected twist to their vacation experience."
"Looking ahead," Blazys said, "I expect that AR and AI will continue to be important, both to us as a destination that is always pushing the envelope on innovation, and in the overall travel space as technology continues to evolve and audiences look for new ways to enhance their destination experience."
Margaret Martin, CEO of CN2, called Visit Orlando an "early adopter" of AR technology in travel, though she has seen more interest in AR of late from the industry. Martin said she has also noticed an uptick in publicity around AR technology as well as an increased focus on it from large technology companies such as Apple and Facebook.
"I truly believe that a key driver for all of that is the mass adoption of the smartphone and of tablets, and this medium being very consumable with the devices that people have on them today," Martin said. "They don't have to buy something new."